Musical Stage Company & Canadian Stage/BLACKOUT, book by Steven Gallagher, music and lyrics by Anton Lipovetsky, directed by Ann Hodges, High Park Amphitheatre, Jul. 23 to Aug. 15. Tickets available at canadianstage.com.
A funny thing happened during the run of BLACKOUT, a new musical being presented by the Musical Stage Company at High Park Amphitheatre. After saying that they didn’t want reviews because BLACKOUT is a work-in-development, the company decided to “welcome reviews” even though the show is still a work-in-development. All they asked of reviewers is that we state that this is a preview production, so herewith, I am stating that BLACKOUT is a preview production.
Musical Stage Company, founded in 2004, is an esteemed presenter of musical theatre, whether extant or new. In fact, I would place MSC among the most important in the country when it comes to this genre. Regardless of the relative merits of the material, the company always mounts quality work, which is why I am an admirer.
BLACKOUT was originally slated for MSC’s 2021-2022 season, but the company has taken advantage of Canadian Stage’s Dream in High Park program to, as they say in the trade, get the show on its feet before a live audience. Another reason for this preview production is the similarities between the 2003 blackout and the present pandemic, both of which brought the city to its knees. An audience would surely feel the resonances, and in fact, we do.
Despite being scaled down in set (to a grainy cityscape and bits and pieces of furniture) and relying on reduced accompaniment (there is only a piano and guitar), BLACKOUT has good bones. When MSC presents a more lavish version of the show, (sometime in the future, they say), it can be with the full knowledge that the current state of the musical has a lot to recommend it.
The show features three unconnected stories that take place in Toronto during the infamous August 2003 blackout that knocked out power to huge swaths of the Midwest and Northeastern United States, and a good chunk of Ontario. The three playlets follow the course of the blackout, the first beginning in the afternoon when the power first went off, the next in the wee small hours of the morning, and the last at dawn the next day.
Gemini features two sisters (Chilina Kennedy and Synthia Yusuf) who have bad blood between them. In Pandora, a couple (Yemie Sonuga and Jonathan Winsby) find themselves at odds over their blackout party, which the wife instigated by inviting the neighbourhood. The last two partygoers, the couple’s tenant (Rami Khan) and a stranger (Germaine Konji) whom the wife picked up off the street, find themselves caught in the fallout from this troubled couple. The last story Cygnus revolves around a dispirited gay man (Michael De Rose) and his encounter with a stranger (Brandon Antonio).
The main theme, so the creators tell us, is people making connections that will hopefully help bring them out of the darkness. There are also references to Greek mythology throughout. Each story is cast specific, which was probably a smart choice given the fact that the musical was developed on Zoom during the pandemic.
Toronto-based Steven Gallagher (book) and Vancouver-based Anton Lipovetsky (music and lyrics) were matched together in 2018 as part of MSC’s Launch Pad program, which develops new musicals. To complete the pan-Canadian look of the creative team, Winnipeg-based Ann Hodges has acted as both dramaturge and director on the project.
Each story has a dark edge, but the strongest is Pandora because it doesn’t fall into false hope. I only wish that Gallagher hadn’t given such a soft landing to Gemini and Cygnus. These rays of sunshine, no matter how frail, do diminish the impact of the stories, particularly because Gallagher is great at writing both tension and pathos into a scene. On the positive side, however, another of Gallagher’s strengths is strong character studies, not to mention wry humour.
I was worried that BLACKOUT was going to be another one of those endless soft rock musicals where all the songs sound the same, but happily, Lipovetsky has given us a lot of variety in the music. He is also very good at making the songs match the characters, with the music helping to carry the plots forward.
His lyrics are deceptively simple (“In my basement suite/Smelling deli meat”), but, at the same time, the very simplicity gives a conversational tone to the songs, making them spring naturally from dialogue. Lipovetsky can also toss off duets, trios and quartets, with competing songs working well together. Strong performances from music director/pianist Wayne Gwillim and guitarist Steve John Dale make these two instruments sound like a much larger orchestra, aided and abetted by Gwillim’s nifty orchestrations.
Because BLACKOUT is a Musical Stage Company production, everyone can sing, which is something one can always count on with this group. They also look for strong actor/singers, and the cast of BLACKOUT is filled with them. Diversity is another hallmark, and ethnicity abounds. Clearly, director Ann Hodges has worked hard on character development, with Gallagher, Lipovetsky, and the cast.
There are, however, some first among equals in the performances. Chilina Kennedy as the flakey-cum-spiritual sister Leighton in Gemini gives a wonderfully nuanced performance, providing depth to what could have been a one-dimensional character. Equally impressive is Brandon Antonio as the stranger Zachary in Cygnus. He too radiates character, and I find myself being more impressed with him at each outing.
Making her debut with MSC is Yemie Sonuga, who brilliantly captures Pandora’s manic personality. I also enjoyed Jonathan Winsby as Pandora’s husband Manny. The two, playing off each other, brought out nervous tension that was electric.
I’ll be very interested to see BLACKOUT when it is a grown-up show. Often, big productions lose their heart, but I don’t think that will happen with this musical because it has a strong foundation. BLACKOUT works even in reduced circumstances.
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